Harassment in the Workplace – What Should Employers be doing?

The recent headlines which started with allegations against Harvey Weinstein then spread across Hollywood before engulfing Westminster, alongside the stories that 1000’s have chosen to share  through the #MeToo and #MenToo hashtags have highlighted the continuing prevalence of  sexual harassment in the workplace.

The experiences recounted by many in the wake of these reports are supported by a recent TUC Report[i] that found up to 52% of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in some form, including groping, sexual comments and inappropriate jokes with that number rising to 63% in the 16-24 age bracket.

With this in mind the question becomes, what should employers be doing to help combat the problem?

In response I could write a paragraph about how employers can be liable for the actions of their employees, regardless of whether they knew about them, or about how it is in the employer’s interest to deal effectively with complaints and have a well drafted equality/harassment policy setting out what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour. However, the rules against workplace harassment have been around for some time and these actions have long been established as the minimum an employer should be doing.

What is clear given the current revelations is that the minimum, while helping to protect employers from claims, does not seem to be enough to protect employees from harassment. So in short, the answer to the question about what employers should be doing is, more. The impetus for action can no longer be the risk of claim or financial penalty; steps must be taken to actively improve the working environment for all and that may mean managing a change of culture.

While we would hope most employers recognise that it’s no longer tolerable to judge workplace behaviour based on whether or not it would be acceptable in a “Carry On” movie, it is clear that some view the recent attention given to harassment issues as a case of political correctness gone mad or all part of a liberal/left-wing/BBC/EU conspiracy to gag us with red tape and suck all joy out of the jolly UK workplace.

While I have deliberated lampooned/exaggerated this type of response, these arguments even at their most innocuous are fundamentally unhelpful to the debate and arguably damaging. They thrive on the idea that a little rebellion against rules if not actively encouraged will be overlooked; that it is ok to test or even break boundaries if it’s done in the name of humour regardless of whether everyone is in on the joke.

Right about now the word “banter”, or worse its jacked up little brother “bants”, is going to be lobbed into this debate with all the grace and subtlety of the Scary Movie franchise. I have been representing employers in harassment claims for the best part of decade and can honestly say that I still get a shiver of dread whenever either phrase is offered with ill-due optimism by way of explanation for all manner of behaviour… “we didn’t think a “ho’s and pimps” theme for dress down Friday would cause such an issue, we didn’t have anywhere near this number of complaints following the “50 shades” theme.

This view simultaneously dismisses and vilifies the complainant, elevates perpetrator to protagonist and trivialises the act itself. Further, it is completely oblivious to the cumulative effect any level of harassment can have if experienced on a continuous basis.

This type of attitude gives the impression that harassment for the most part has more in common with a saucy seaside postcard; its complainants humourless or oversensitive and its perpetrator cheeky and fun. This couldn’t be further from the truth, the TUC report found;

·         35% of women have heard comments of a sexual nature being made about other women in the workplace,

·         Twenty-eight per cent of women have been subject to comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes,

·         Nearly one quarter of women have experienced unwanted touching with one in eight reporting unwanted sexual touching of their breasts, buttocks or genitals.

Regardless of how well written your harassment policy if this thinking permeates a business, particularly at a more senior level, the problem is never going to be resolved. Power is often a crucial factor in complaints with almost a fifth of women saying they had been harassed by their boss or someone else with authority over them.

All these lead us to what is likely the most startling statistic from the TUC report; “four in five women said they did not report the incidents to their employers, with many fearing that it would harm their relationships at work or that they would not be taken seriously”.

Perception also remains a significant concern with one survey[ii] finding that male HR directors and decision makers were 50% less likely to consider sexism an issue in their workplaces as compared to their female counterparts. Male perception (and I include myself within this) has to change. There needs to be an acceptance the problem is a pervasive as the statistics would suggest and ignoring the issue or paying lip service to it by doing the minimum needed to avoid claims is not going to help bring those numbers down.

Knowing that over 50% of women are experiencing some form of harassment in the workplace (across all industries) then not taking positive steps to address issue is no longer an option. There is no bureaucratic cabal sucking the joy out of the British workplace. Banter is the last refuge of the damned. The need to preserve some misplaced form the “Carry On” legacy will never justify the perpetuation of a culture in which at best sexual harassment is trivialised and at worst sexual assault is overlooked.

[i]Still just a bit of banter? TUC in association with Everyday Sexism Project

[ii]Young Women’s Trust commissioned YouGov

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